Rhubarb in Grandma’s Garden

Hot-house rhubarb spotted in shop window, Brunswick, GA  January 2015
Rhubarb plant spotted in front of shop window, Brunswick, GA
January 2015

Grandma and I in the Rhubarb Patch

It’s me, pigtails flapping in the May breezes, skipping beside Grandma toward the rhubarb patch. Behind Grandma’s house toward the woods a thick nest of rhubarb stalks stands sentinel over a ridge facing the twelve sweet cornfield rows. In her garden, the pinkish-red rhubarb spears get back-row status but I think they are pretty enough for her flower garden out front.

“You said you are stopped up – didn’t have any luck when you went to the bathroom.” Grandma with her sunbonnet and apron pulls off the biggest pinkish-red stalks, the green heart-shaped, crinkly leaves falling to the ground with one swath of her knife. “A dose of this will fix that.” She’s looking intently at the rhubarb but I know she’s talking to me.

I have eaten Grandma’s rhubarb sauce before, but I never thought of it as a laxative. “It has roughage in it. It’ll really clean you out.” She runs her rough hands along the spine of the stalk to show me the fibers.

“I see,” I say but right now I wonder if it tastes as good as it looks, so I bite into a stalk and find out too late that it has plenty of pucker power. “Eeee-ow. It tastes sour,” spitting the mouthful out on the ground.

“Goodness gracious, you have to boil it first in sugar water to make it taste good, don’t ya know!” She giggles at my ignorance and finishes pulling off more rhubarb stems with a twist of her wrist like separating a stalk of celery from the bunch. Then we head back toward her kitchen.

Making Rhubarb Sauce

The round, dented aluminum pot is simmering on the stove. With every passing minute the mixture of sugar water and rhubarb cut into 1/2-inch chunks is becoming more ruby red. At the last minute Grandma says, “ Just two shakes,” and I flick my wrist to shake the little can of cinnamon twice as swirls of steam half-scald my hand and wrist.

When it cools, it will taste both tart and sweet. That I know!

Rhubarb Pie from The Mennonite Community Cookbook, 2015

RhubarbPieRecipe

(Adding Strawberries to the rhubarb adds another layer of flavor.)

My Mother's Garden, an embroidered poem
My Mother’s Garden, an embroidered poem in Grandma’s bedroom

What You Might Not Know About Rhubarb

Yes, rhubarb has good cathartic (laxative!) powers, but according to Marion Owen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul, rhubarb is out to save the planet too:

Rhubarb not only saves our plants from aphids, it may also save the planet. In the mid-1980’s, when a hole was discovered in the ozone layer, researchers found that CFC’s were one of the primary reasons for the ozone’s decline.

One of the most common forms of CFC’s is freon, which is used as a refrigerator coolant. Conventional methods for breaking down CFC’s were costly and dangerous. But in 1995, two Yale scientists discovered that oxalic acid, found in rhubarb, helped neutralize CFC’s. Rhubarb to the rescue!

Marion Owen from Kodiak, Alaska, also publishes a newsletter titled The UpBeet Gardener.

RhubarbCabbagePurple

Beets, rhubarb, memories of springtime in the garden – all are on the table for today’s conversation!

Coming next: Mennonite Girls Can Cook

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40 thoughts on “Rhubarb in Grandma’s Garden

  1. Thanks you for all the information on rhubarb, Marian! Coincidentally, a couple of days ago, I went to the store just to get rhubarb and berries for another fruit crisp (alas, no homegrown here). This one was mostly rhubarb with strawberries, blackberries, and a few blueberries. I love the tartness that the rhubarb adds to it.
    I can’t think of rhubarb pie without this song playing in my head. Do you know it from A Prairie Home Companion?

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    1. Yes, indeed I do. Garrison Keillor has made a fetish of rhubarb and he’s made quite a living from his brand of literary nostalgia! I hope other readers will click on your link – some to reminisce.

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      1. “We’ll be somewhere listening, we’ll be somewhere listening . . . ,” you can be sure. The arts sweeten the world- all the research show it. Brava to your being the driving force behind the music center!

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  2. Marian, you have dished up a delightful and informative display about rhubarb and all the memories it evokes. We have rhubarb in our garden but I had no idea how beneficial it was. I do know it is a sturdy plant that endures weather extremes. I will view it with a new respect after reading your post! Thanks for the recipe, too.

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    1. Lucky you. I don’t think rhubarb grows in Florida, but I’ll have to find out. I’d probably have to “doctor” the soil before planting though. Thanks for commenting on your garden in New York state; it must be so gratifying to see things sprout and grow after such a harsh winter.

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  3. I made rhubarb sauce (recipe memorized) from farmer’s market rhubarb and strawberries yesterday, Marian. Always brings back memories. I like slightly warm rhubarb sauce poured over good vanilla ice cream. Yum.

    Did you know about Rhubarb Magazine? Check it out here: http://www.rhubarbmag.com/ It would be a good place for you to publish some of your pre-pub memoir in short form.

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  4. What great timing for the Garrison/Goshen plug! About rhubarb, I never liked it much until my daughter moved back home after college and she was a huge fan, especially of Rhubarb Crisp. The recipe for pie looks good too, my Dad was a big fan. Lovina Eicher over at Lovina’s Amish Kitchen cans the juice to drink. Did your grandmother do that too?

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    1. I don’t remember Grandma or Mother canning rhubarb juice, but why not. It was always rhubarb sauce or pie that I remember. It’s great when produce that’s good for you is also tasty and so very versatile.

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  5. Look like we all need to plant Rhubarb. My Daughter-in-law Amy, plants a huge garden every year. It is her passion, son Ronnie helps when not busy with his business. They have a very large Rhubarb plant in the garden, that comes back every year. I am the pie baker in the family, Amy is getting better, and we all couldn’t wait for a slice of Strawberry Rhubarb Pie. It was a request by all, so actually made it several time in the early summer, when Strawberries are so sweet in Washington. Enjoyed your post.

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    1. I see we’re hitting the nostalgia button with lilacs and rhubarb. And you’re such a wonderful cook and baker, Terry, this discussion must really put in the mood. I’ll bet Fresh Fields Farms stock rhubarb. Thanks for checking in today with a delightful comment.

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  6. Marian — Laxative? Who knew! Most certainly your grandma did.

    I had my first taste of rhubarb — straight out of a garden — many decades ago in Minnesota. I thought it was the “prettiest celery” I’d ever seen. Little did I know it was sour enough to make my belly button pucker!

    Len and I will be listening to PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION tonight — wouldn’t miss it for the world!

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      1. Belly button pucker – now there’s a belly laugh!

        Cliff and I are listening to Prairie Home Companion right now and the mandolin player is playing a jaunty tune. I hope you caught the “Mennonite” Song, Garrison Keillor made up near the beginning of the show. There is nothing to beat 4-part harmony – huh!

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  7. Marian , you have bought back so many memories and educated me as well . But first I am so sorry I missed your last post , we were moving in to our 3/4 house . It’s still not finished but I don’t care because we feel whole living here .
    Anyway nostalgia… My dad grew everything possible in our garden and rhubarb was always there at the bottom of the garden proud as punch . Yes mum used to make pies and crumbles but my favourite way of eating was sitting on an upturned bucket , a stick of rhubarb , a brown paper bag full of sugar and dunking to my heart content .
    Hey I didn’t know it was that good for me I’m out there buying a pot for my new garden .
    Thanks for the memories .
    Cherryx

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    1. I love the picture in my mind of you on an upturned bucket dunking a stick of rhubarb into a brown paper bag full of sugar. Ha!

      No need for apologies; we all get busy. Moving is an extraordinarily big leap and saps one’s energy for anything else. Just glad you read and posted now, Cherry!

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  8. Thanks for this nostalgic post! We love rhubarb pie. I had some rhubarb stocks given to my by a wonderful elderly friend, ‘Granddad’, about twenty years ago. It’s coming up now! I can’t wait!

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  9. I appreciate your celebration of rhubarb. It’s not only tasty, but tough; we have a patch that came with the house when we bought it 10 years ago, and the rhubarb is still going strong. May you have many more delicious rhubarb pies this spring and for many springs to come!

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  10. Marian … I love your trip down the rhubarb patch. While I do recall rhubarb’s pucker power, I believe it was mighty tasty with just a bit of salt. And, yes, I do believe I have had rhubarb pie. Wonderful treat. Thank you for your entertaining story and tasty recipe. 😉

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  11. I am sure rhubarb has many good qualities but it is one of the few things I just can´t eat. It grew prolifically in the Alberta prairies. Rhubarb kuchen was very popular, just not with me.

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  12. My brother and I used to dare each other to eat rhubarb and gooseberries right out of the garden. “Sour as sin” as my mother would say. I’m looking forward to picking this year’s rhubarb in a few weeks!

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  13. My grandma had a rhubarb patch, too, and strawberries to go with it. She was Dutch, and I still remember those pies lined up on the kitchen counter on Sunday. She baked in a wood-powered oven, even during Missouri summers. Sweat stained her blue-gray hair yellow. I don’t remember the laxative part, but do know about the oxalates. Wonderful memories and great photos, Marian. Thank you.

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    1. You are welcome, Elaine. And thank you for the colorful, shimmering image of your grandma in the kitchen baking. I knew about the laxative quality of rhubarb and you told me about oxalates, so it’s an even trade. 🙂

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  14. Marian, Rhubarb has always been one of my favorite things in the world. Strawberry-rhubarb pie, just plain ole rhubarb sauce, and my dad’s rhubarb lemonade are the ways I loved it the most. I miss it on my sugar-free diet!

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  15. I’m coming in late to the rhubarb fest here, Marian, but you’ve got my juices flowing. I’ve had four rhubarb plants for about five years, but this year only two have come back. Harsh winter? I don’t know. When we vacationed in Denmark that summer I was in Peace Corps (2005), the house we rented had a rhubarb hedge! After a year with no fresh veggies, I was in heaven. In fact, I’ll go harvest a few stalk right now. Must try that pie. Thanks.

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